If only the rest of the nation's seniors were as lucky. When politicians and journalists talk about problems in elder care, they usually point to horrific abuse in nursing homes or to retirees who are forced to skip meals to pay for prescription drugs. But the most serious crisis in elder care has been largely ignored: not enough doctors who know how to diagnose and treat aging's special ailments. Out of 650,000 physicians in the U.S. today, just 9,000 are certified in geriatric medicine. And that number is shrinking, as many quit the poorly paid field or retire. Only 3 out of 144 U.S. medical schools have a full department in geriatrics (all have a department in pediatrics), and fewer than 3% of medical students take even one course in geriatrics, according to the International Longevity Center. During the next 30 years, more than 70 million baby boomers will reach age 65. Who will care for them?
Medicine for the elderly is a different science from medicine for the young or the middle-aged. Seniors face a range of age-related ailments dementia, Alzheimer's, arthritis and typically swallow more than four medications a day. A doctor's attention to how drugs interact can mean the difference between saving a life and taking one. Many geriatricians say they devote much of their efforts to sorting out the complications caused by their patients' previous doctors. Each year 17% of elderly Americans are hospitalized after experiencing a dangerous drug interaction or taking incorrect dosages. The American Medical Association says nearly 7 million seniors a year are routinely prescribed drugs that are too risky for them.
Mary Richert, 79, of Jennings, La., had been living on her own, taking trips as far away as Alaska, until she began suffering from memory and balance problems. She stopped driving and traveling and became depressed. At the urging of her children, she spent 18 months trying to find a doctor who could help her. But the message from the series of internists, urologists, neuropsychologists and neurologists she saw was always the same: "Mama's problems are because Mama's getting older."
That wasn't the reason. Two years ago, Richert went to see Charles Cefalu, one of the top geriatric specialists in the U.S. "He was different from any doctor I had been to," says Richert. "He took his time." Cefalu's thorough examination helped him figure out the cause of Richert's seeming dementia: her brain like that of a child born with "water on the brain"--had stopped draining cerebral fluid. Cefalu sent Richert to a neurosurgeon, who placed a shunt inside her brain to act as a drain. Her health improved dramatically. Today she gardens, travels and to the consternation of her children is driving again.
It's an inspirational tale, yet what saved Richert is what keeps doctors away from geriatrics: it takes time to diagnose elders' problems. A physician is reimbursed by insurers for a typical office visit of 15 or 20 minutes. But a geriatrician needs on average at least an hour for an initial assessment. While a general internist can see 2,000 to 3,000 patients a year, a geriatrician sees fewer than 500 patients, making for a smaller income. Says Joseph Ouslander, head of Emory University's geriatric-medicine program: "I can go into my clinic and spend an hour with a very complicated 90-year-old patient, identify her 10 medical problems, sort out her dozen medications, talk to her children. And I get the same reimbursement as the dermatologist who spends 30 seconds shaving off a mole."
A geriatrician's income is almost entirely dependent on the amount that Medicare pays for each patient, in effect leaving the doctor's salary up to the Federal Government. And this year Congress has cut Medicare reimbursements 5.4%. Louisiana Senator John Breaux, who chairs the Senate Aging Committee, is one of the few members of Congress to call attention to the shortages in elder care, most recently at a hearing last February. Yet Breaux, a fiscal conservative, told TIME he won't consider raising Medicare reimbursement rates. "That's not in the cards right now," he says. Instead, he proposes forgiving student loans to doctors who go into geriatric medicine.